The 2018 running back class is being touted as one of the best and deepest in recent memory. It remains to be seen whether that is the case, but one way to get at the question is to examine their Workhorse Scores.
Long-time RotoViz readers will be familiar with the Workhorse Metric. Matthew Freedman invented it to encapsulate a running back’s share of his team’s (non-QB) rushing production in non-blowouts. The idea is to find out how much a college RB was used in meaningful game situations when his team intentionally rushed the ball with a RB.
How to Use the Workhorse Metric
Before I get to the data, there are a few things to keep in mind about the metric itself. First, a bad Workhorse Score is not necessarily a red flag, especially for a big prospect from a big school. Sony Michel and Nick Chubb both sport disappointing Workhorse Scores, but both have prototypical NFL size and both played for a Georgia team that ranked No. 2 in the final AP poll. Indeed, both stole work from each other, so we would not expect elite Workhorse Scores. Both also shared the field for at least part of their careers with Todd Gurley. Obviously, we would like all our favorite prospects to have elite Workhorse Scores, but a poor Workhorse Score is not as detrimental to an early-round RB as you might think. For instance, Alvin Kamara was someone I named as a loser in last year’s article—I hope you didn’t take that too seriously.
By the same token, Saquon Barkley’s excellent Workhorse Score does not add much to his already elite profile. In these cases, the Workhorse Score could function as a sort of tiebreaker. If you have Barkley and Derrius Guice ranked about the same, Barkley’s advantage in the Workhorse Metric might be enough to move him ahead of Guice for you.1
Where the Workhorse Metric shines is in finding and scouting RBs who lack NFL size or who come from programs that lack the pedigree of the elite schools, and who are often taken later in the NFL draft. Two of the top workhorses from the 2017 class—Aaron Jones and Tarik Cohen—showed this in limited NFL action last year.
How to Read the Data Below
The numbers you see below are, in some cases, not true Workhorse Scores in the originally-intended sense. In order to get these numbers out quickly, and to save myself a lot of time and effort, I have skipped one part of the calculation—namely, I did not remove games that a player left early due to injury. However, the numbers below should be accurate for most players, and will not be too far off for others. But there are cases in which the Workhorse Scores below will differ slightly from hand-calculated scores. For players where this does make a difference, I or another writer will hopefully point those situations out in separate articles.
I’ve only included FBS RBs because the data source I’m using does not have complete FCS, Division II, or Division III data. Again, hopefully, this limitation will be overcome through individual player profiles, as, for example, Ryan Bobbit has done for Fordham’s Chase Edmonds.
Finally, I’ve included only those RBs who appear on popular NFL Draft ranking sites. The scores are in the table below. After the table, I’ll quickly profile some of the standouts according to the Workhorse Metric—those who benefit the most from their Workhorse Scores. I’ll end with a few comments on the 2018 class as a whole.
2018 Class Workhorse Scores
|Saquon Barkley||Penn State||--||--||60.97||82.44||92.20||78.63|
|Ito Smith||Southern Mississippi||--||21.44||36.61||84.58||91.29||62.79|
|Larry Rose III||New Mexico State||--||60.39||92.06||87.98||83.07||78.95|
|Ronald Jones II||USC||--||--||41.02||67.67||76.13||62.00|
|Ray Lawry||Old Dominion||--||67.46||77.77||56.65||64.84||66.01|
|Jalin Moore||Appalachian St||--||--||29.43||49.89||60.21||45.91|
|Ryan Nall||Oregon State||--||--||58.15||72.93||55.19||63.78|
|Jarvion Franklin||Western Michigan||--||93.39||18.62||38.74||54.99||53.52|
|Justin Crawford||West Virginia||--||--||--||39.63||51.30||44.24|
|Mark Walton||Miami (FL)||--||--||42.81||64.01||48.31||51.99|
|Nyheim Hines||NC State||--||--||11.05||1.34||47.86||33.12|
|Josh Adams||Notre Dame||--||--||34.83||67.71||38.05||34.63|
|Kalen Ballage||Arizona State||--||2.29||42.08||59.44||33.12||37.72|
2018’s Workhorse Standouts
Standing under 5-foot-8 and weighing in at 185 pounds, Colorado’s Phillip Lindsay is the sort of prospect who needs a good Workhorse Score. He doesn’t disappoint. His final-season score of 97.01 easily leads the 2018 class. There are a few red flags, however: his size, for one, but also his age (he’ll be 24 before the start of the 2018 preseason) and his lack of efficiency (he averaged only 4.9 yards per carry over his career, with only one season above 5.0). But he’s more than proven he can handle the workload—in his career spanning four seasons at Colorado with nearly 900 total touches, he never missed a game due to an injury. The lack of a combine invite is a fairly strong negative signal, but Lindsay is still worth keeping an eye on. He’s one of the few prospects in recent memory who’s not only a good size comp for Darren Sproles but who also matches Sproles in terms of workhorse ability.2
I mentioned above that Barkley doesn’t benefit much from his excellent Workhorse Score, since he already might be the perfect RB prospect even without taking it into account. Basically, his Workhorse Score doesn’t tell us anything we don’t already know—namely, that he has the potential to be a workhorse at the NFL level. But I think he’s worth noting here because Barkley’s final-season Workhorse Score is not only one of the best in the current class—it’s better than any score in the 2017 class too. The 2017 RB class has already produced four RBs who are being drafted in the first round of best ball leagues with regularity. None of them was quite the workhorse for their respective college teams that Barkley was for Penn State. Barkley’s career Workhorse Score is also the second best in the class, falling just about three tenths shy of the top score.
Ito Smith is the only FBS player since 2000 to accumulate more than 4,500 career rushing yards and more than 1,200 career receiving yards. Like Lindsay, Smith has displayed his workhorse ability over multiple seasons. Devin McIntyre suggested that Smith’s athleticism might not matter as much because of the production he’s been able to amass at Southern Mississippi. Let’s hope he’s right since Smith also failed to receive a combine invite.
Tennessee’s John Kelly shared the field with Kamara during his first two seasons. But he picked up nearly where Kamara left off in 2017. In eight workhorse-eligible games, Kelly finished just shy of 1,000 scrimmage yards. He averaged more than 80 rushing yards and three receptions per game en route to a top-four 2017 Workhorse Score—a mark Kamara never came close to.
Larry Rose III
Larry Rose III saw his rushing production take a step back in 2017. But he still sports the highest career Workhorse Score of any FBS RB prospect in the 2018 class, posting a score above 80 in three consecutive seasons. He is one of only six players since 2000 to average over 100 rushing yards per game and three receptions per game over his career. Barkley and Rose are the only FBS players in this class to post a score above 60 in every season of their college careers. Rose, unfortunately, is another back who was not invited to the combine—I’m sensing a trend.3
Ralph Webb’s freshman Workhorse Score of 67.84 is the fifth-highest freshman score in the class. What makes Webb stand out from some of the backs with higher freshman Workhorse Scores such as Royce Freeman and Nick Wilson is that Webb was able to sustain his workhorse ability, posting two more scores above 70 in his career.
Justin Jackson parlayed his junior season Workhorse Score of 85.69 into the third highest career score in the class. He’s one of only two FBS players since 2000 to have over 5,000 career rushing yards and over 100 career receptions.
He had at least 1,100 rushing yards and 20 receptions in all four of his seasons at Northwestern. Like Lindsay, he was never a very efficient rusher, reaching the 5.0 YPC mark in only one season. But unlike Lindsay, he’ll get a chance to show his athleticism at the combine.
Only four backs posted scores above 50 in four consecutive seasons: Rose, Webb, Jackson, and Ray Lawry. Lawry’s 2017 was cut short, but in eight games he was on pace for a third straight 1,000-yard, 10-touchdown season.
Jarvion Franklin’s recent Workhorse Scores do not look that good. But for the past three seasons, he’s been sharing the field with another talented back in Jamauri Bogan. Prior to Bogan’s arrival, Franklin showed his immense potential by accounting for more than 93 percent of Western Michigan’s non-QB rushing production as a freshman. Matt Wispe identified Franklin as one of the sleeper RB prospects to watch closely at the combine.
How Does the 2018 Class Stack Up?
The 2018 class of RBs appears to compare favorably to the 2017 class. No back in last year’s class had a Workhorse Score in the 90s. Three backs in the 2018 class achieved that mark in 2017, and a few did so in prior seasons. Lindsay’s 2017 Workhorse Score of 97.01 is among the best ever since 2004. Rose’s career Workhorse Score puts him above backs like Ray Rice and Matt Forte. Barkley combines his elite size, athleticism, and raw production with an elite Workhorse Score to make a RB franken-prospect like we’ve rarely seen before.
We already know how the 2017 class performed in the NFL. If the Workhorse Metric is any indication of the potential these backs have on an NFL field, then the 2018 class of RBs should not disappoint.
The one thing the Workhorse Metric does not account for is receiving production, which is becoming increasingly important in the NFL. Stay tuned for a follow-up article that will incorporate receiving stats, including a new and, I hope, more helpful way to measure a RB’s receiving contribution.
- At the same time, note that Guice shared the field with Leonard Fournette and Darrel Williams, so his low Workhorse Score is explainable and not a major red flag. (back)
- Sproles posted a 96.61 Workhorse Score in 2004. (back)
- Anthony Amico’s recent work on modeling college RBs confirms that RB production is not being adequately accounted for in a prospect’s draft ranking. That is to say, NFL teams appear to undervalue production, which might partially explain the preponderance of combine snubs on this list. (back)